Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Light

He celebrated youth, his eyes bright, holding a lifetime of possibilities. He stood on the doorstep of the old building, his hand hovering at his future - to knock or walk away.

Summoning his courage, managing to keep his excitement in check, he knocked on the door. It must have felt like jumping off a cliff as adrenaline pulsed through him, the opportunity to back out vanishing.

I opened the door, greeting him, the same adrenaline finding me. He was the first person I’d dated since the call I’d taken, abruptly ending my thirteen-year relationship. Greeting this boy was one more step out of a funk that began with a mantra of self-abuse for letting someone I loved slip away. The young man’s age meant I was expecting this to go only one way. That’s what I was looking for; something exciting, something liberating; something disposable. He didn’t care I was older. At nineteen he was half my age. We shared enough in our backgrounds to make the age gap less ridiculous, but I wasn’t kidding myself about what this was.

His name was Alexander, but he called himself Sasha. It was the familiar name given to him by his family and friends. He was charming, well spoken even in his second language and from a wealthy, privileged world of expectations and demands that I knew only too well. He was heading to the train station, en route to Berlin, to study engineering. His parents were paying for the course and covering his living expenses. Nothing was too much for their beloved first son; except their time.

I knew this part of his story. In a privileged world time is a rare commodity. I understood how debilitating that lack of interest could be. The benefit was freedom and independence; the disadvantage - a stranded self-confidence. It took a force of pent-up sexual desire to overcome and bring this young man to my door. It was why he’d shown up, or at least part of it. The other piece of the jigsaw was selecting a foreigner with no possible connection to anyone in his world. That meant no possibility of being outed before he was ready.

The freedom he enjoyed from his parent’s lack of supervision allowed him to alter his travel plans by a weekend and find the perfect accomplice. I was lucky enough to be the person he chose. A nineteen-year-old, arriving at my door like room service, with plans to spend the weekend, before heading to a university, a thousand miles away. He had no plans to return before my contract would end and by then, I’d be half a world away. It was the perfect formula for a one night stand.

My apartment was old and ornate. It sat within the forgotten ghetto that cast a shadow over the city. The small portion of preserved ghetto wall, with it’s even smaller memorial plaque, along with the bagel sellers on every street corner, screamed the ghosts of a dark past discreetly ignored by most. It was a city that prided itself on looking forward, not back. That made it the perfect place for Sasha to vanish for a weekend.

He arrived with his provisions for his new life, worn on his back in a pack that towered over him and made each step unsteady. He unclipped and leveraged the heavy backpack to the floor in my front hall. We sat in the small galley kitchen trading small talk.

I didn’t know the etiquette of the online hook-up back then. It was early in the millennium, the diplomacy of the left swipe was still years away. In time I would learn, on welcoming strangers for sex, small talk was entirely unnecessary, but here and now, it seemed the least we should do before taking things further.

We did take it further. We began in the bedroom before visiting almost every room in the house over the next three days. Sasha transformed from a shy timid young man to one who thought nothing of walking around the house naked, as if he belonged. He stayed like that, on display, for almost all of his time with me, enjoying his new found freedom. He only dressed when we went out; the first time being when we ran out of alcohol. The two of us wandered down to the nearby market, through the late October snow that transformed the city and made any trip outside an extraordinary adventure. Sasha found my awe at the squeaking snow amusing. We swapped stories about childhood that brought us closer.

We bought a chicken, beer and some rather sad looking vegetables from a shop-assistant who assured us they would taste better than they looked. It wasn’t the season for healthy eating, and this wasn’t a city offering spring vegetables out of season in any but the wealthiest suburbs. My suburb seemed lost in time, lurching to catch up to a modern world, but not quite able.

Back home I roasted the chicken with potatoes and carrots. We drank and ate and slept together until we wanted nothing but sleep. We continued like this for two more days, without any real care for anyone or anything happening outside the apartment.

On the third day, Sasha told me he wanted to take me somewhere special, to share something of the local customs. I was curious and let him lead.

We jumped in a taxi and arrived at a cemetery, crowded with people, sombre as they passed between the stones and mausoleums. They placed lit candles on the graves of family members, friends, or on stones of the great names of the city, now all resting together as equals.

It was All Saints Eve. It seemed the whole city had come to pay their respects. The brightest graves were the soldiers and citizens who fell during the uprising against the Nazis and were now forever honoured in this place on this night.

The whole cemetery flickered and shone brightly from a sea of candles. Even long forgotten names received a good share of flames, the passers-by unwilling to leave any soul in darkness.

We walked in silence, part of the orderly progression, filing by gravestones, reading the names and dates. It was particularly moving, considering I was a stranger, but there is something universal in the dead being respectfully honoured. It’s a tip of the hat through time to those who delivered us and gave us what we have, and never more poignant than in this city, in this cemetery.

That night was to be my last with Sasha. With fresh supplies of alcohol and a feeling of goodwill from our All Saints evening, we filled up the large bath, lit our candles and balanced the ledger for our earlier religious respect.

In the morning we shared a cooked breakfast, then a hug and Sasha, with his heavy pack, still balanced precariously on his shoulders, headed out my front door and away, towards the train station and a life filled with a thousand challenges.

I came back inside and felt quite contented. As far as random hook-ups go it was a great success; a no-strings, fleeting but enjoyable weekend with a young man I would always remember.

The next weeks rolled by without being noticed. I was working for a large company who brought me in to guide a large job. I forgot about Sasha and the time we’d spent together, as the days and weeks brought me new people and places to fill my time.

At Christmas, I had a few days off. With no family around and a flight home offering more time in the air than on the ground, I was looking forward to being a hermit and binge watching whatever I could find to watch.

There was a knock at the door. I was surprised. I didn’t know anyone, so I assumed it was a neighbour or a salesperson. I opened the door to Sasha who threw his arms around my neck and hugged me close. He had the same backpack strapped to him, although this time it was hardly holding anything, and a plastic bag clutched tight in hand. He smiled wide on seeing me and kissed me passionately.

As he enjoyed my astonished look, he explained he’d told his parents he wanted to stay over Christmas in his university dorm room to study. He’d then jumped a train to come and see me and not them. He failed to notice my concern and sauntered in to take over the house with the casual ease of belonging that he’d adopted when we were last together.

He handed me the plastic bag he’d been clutching so tightly. It was a present. I opened the bag and found a stunning desk lamp. It was hand crafted in steel and chrome, with a light that looked like a car headlight from the 1920’s, held in place by railroad tracks of dual metal straps on either side, which gently sloped in an art-deco design to metal plates that formed a layered shield effect as a base. It was heavy and looked extraordinarily expensive. Sasha beamed a smile. He knew I was a writer and he wanted something to remind me of him, while I was sitting at my desk working. I thanked him as my stomach pounded a panicked beat, searching to send an alert to my conscience. This kid was in love, and I wasn’t.

My conscience heard the distant drums and ignored them as we hit the bed and picked up where we’d left off. The next morning, after more sex, I become a little more distant. Sasha didn’t notice. I tried to encourage him to go home and visit his parents – he didn’t want to leave my house. I tried to suggest he should go back to Berlin early, as I had so much work to get done. He paraded naked and suggested we re-visit the lounge chair with the wide and sturdy armrests. My work, and attempts to drive him away, could wait.

Another day and Sasha noticed my mood becoming icy. He wanted to talk. I could tell he was upset. I told him it was a mistake for him to come without telling me. It crushed him. He looked like a lost puppy. I felt awful, but I told myself it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t the first person he’d been with, but I suspect I may have been the first person he’d been with he could identify.

Coming out is an extraordinary journey, littered with a huge number of men hiding from everyone, including themselves, and seeking totally anonymous sex with other men. It’s a sad world of shadows and secrets, and when you finally find someone who stands out in the open, it’s so easy to project every hope you’ve ever had onto them. For me, Sasha’s infatuation was flattering. I felt younger than I had in years and it would have been so easy to go with it, leading him on, knowing full well we had no future.

He was a good looking nineteen-year-old at the very beginning of his university experience. Only a complete arsehole would have him miss any of that on a false promise, driven by middle-aged vanity.

It took three days to wear him down. He kept finding excuses for my attitude, hoping it would change. At one stage he begged me to cut his hair with my hair trimmer, and I’m sure it was only to have my attention focused on him for a moment more. The hair cut was lousy, but he smiled, thanked me and said he loved it.

He left my house earlier than planned. He’d finally accepted my harsh, cold message. The All Saints weekend was a moment in time he couldn’t get back. I wasn’t to be the love of his life and whatever he’d projected onto those few days had been too much too soon.

I watched him dejectedly trudge down the snow cleared footpaths on his way to the taxi rank that would deliver him back to the station. A few weeks later I moved to a modern apartment on the very edge of the reclaimed ghetto border. I never heard from Sasha again. I hope he didn’t turn up to that old apartment looking for me, but I will never know.

I stayed in that remarkable city for another year, until my contract ended. When it came time to leave I gave the few personal possessions I’d added to my apartment to a close friend: my desk and chair, my bike and Sasha’s light. That beautiful, expensive, perfect lamp, that sat on my desk for my time there. Some nights I would stare at it and hate myself a little for what it reminded me of, of how I’d treated Sasha. Some nights I’d let it serve a fond recollection of that first, perfect long weekend we’d spent together.

I told my friend to take it, that it was too heavy for me to travel with, and in a way, it was. It could never serve as a light for me to work; it was the light of a broken heart.

Sometimes, even now, I think of Sasha, of where he might be, of what he’s done with his life? Did he find someone he could trust and fall in love? I’m sure he did, and maybe, just maybe he’s travelled far enough from that All Souls Eve to understand why two visits could be so very different – and why I still see the light from that lamp.    

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